Open Letter to the Board of Deputies of British Jews

London, 30 August 2017

Dear Gillian Merron,

What are we to make of the UK’s main Jewish organisation calling for the Barbican to remove a video artwork from a science-fiction themed exhibition?

Apparently you had not seen ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’, the video installation by Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour and Danish author Søren Lind, when you chose to write to the Barbican to demand its removal.

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NEWS RELEASE – Actors, writers and directors denounce demonisation of Palestinian theatre

Let audiences be the judge of Palestinian theatre on UK tour
(NB this original text differs slightly from the version published by the Daily Mail on May 8)

As theatre practitioners in Britain, we are alarmed that the Daily Mail is attacking the Arts Council and the British Council for supporting a UK tour by a Palestinian theatre company.

Your piece, with its inflammatory title UK taxpayers fund ‘pro-terrorist’ play, cites “concerns” from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, an organisation with a shocking record of acting to suppress both cultural and academic events which explore the bitter reality of Palestinian existence. Only last month the University of Southampton succumbed to demonisation and threats and banned an academic conference on the legal status of Israel.

Neither the Daily Mail nor the Board of Deputies has seen Freedom Theatre’s play The Siege, yet both somehow feel qualified to suggest that it is “promoting terrorism”. Not for the first time, Palestinian voices are in danger of being drowned out by a vociferous pro-Israel lobby that smears all Palestinians as terrorists and antisemites. This lobby wants us to believe that theatre-goers in the UK cannot be trusted to hear these voices and make their own judgements.

The Palestinian West Bank, where the Freedom Theatre is based, has been under illegal Israeli military occupation since 1967. We endorse the words of British playwright Howard Brenton, an honorary director of the Freedom Theatre, who writes of the forthcoming tour:

“This is real political theatre, performed out of the both terrible and inspiring experience of a struggle for freedom and justice. [The Freedom Theatre] are living proof that telling stories and entertaining audiences are powerful acts of resistance to oppression. Do go and see them, they have news for us.”

Caryl Churchill
Dominic Cooke
April De Angelis
David Edgar
Lucy Kirkwood
David Lan
Miriam Margolyes
Paul Mayersberg
Maxine Peake
Mark Rylance
Jennie Stoller
Mark Thomas
Samuel West Continue reading

UK High Court backs shutdown of Israel conference

This piece by Asa Winstanley, originally published on Electronic Intifada, explains how Southampton University came to cancel an academic conference about Israel’s legal status following a campaign of vilification by pro-Israel lobbyists, including members of the Conservative-led UK government.

Letters from playwright Caryl Churchill and academics Hilary and Steven Rose contested the cancellation in the Guardian newspaper.

UK High Court backs shutdown of Israel conference

The High Court in London on Tuesday upheld the decision of the University of Southampton to cancel at the last minute an academic conference related to Israel, after speakers were deemed “controversial” by critics.

Israel lobby organizations (including the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies of British Jews) had called for the conference to be canceled because critics of Israel like Ilan Pappe and Nur Masalha were due to present papers.

But those opposed to the conference (including Conservative former education minister Michael Gove and current communities minister Eric Pickles) ignored the fact that supporters of Israel were also due to speak at the conference. These included Alan Johnson of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and the ultra-right-wing Zionist historian Geoffrey Alderman.

Alderman last week used his regular platform in The Jewish Chronicle to argue that the Israel lobby had made a “massive own-goal” in getting the conference canceled since it would just make the pro-Israel argument look weak and unable to withstand scrutiny.

The conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” scheduled for this weekend (17-19 April), had been more than a year in the planning.

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‘All Charlie Hebdo? Except when freedom of expression means freedom to criticise Israel.’

Sajid Javid’s comments on Israeli sponsorship ‘breached the principle of an arms-length relationship between the government and the arts’, writes Caryl Churchill – UK playwright, and Artists’ Pledge signatory.

Two letters defending academic and artistic freedom from bullying and censorship by the Israel lobby were published in the Guardian, Monday 6 April 2015

In late March we had culture secretary Sajid Javid’s astonishing statement in a speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews (reported in Jewish News) that any arts organisations refusing Israeli sponsorship will risk losing funding, breaching the long-established principle of an arms-length relationship between government and the arts. The Arts Council is supposed to be a buffer between them precisely to avoid political censorship and bullying. Now we have news (1 April) of the cancellation of the University of Southampton’s conference on international law and the state of Israel after protests from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Zionist Federation UK. All Charlie Hebdo? Except when freedom of expression means freedom to criticise Israel.
Caryl Churchill
London

We note with regret that the University of Southampton has shamefully capitulated to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby and cancelled an international academic conference. The university claims to have acted on police advice that they cannot guarantee security against threatened demonstrations. Where was the threat to public order? How could a conference, predominantly of lawyers discussing complex legal issues concerning the legal status of Israel and its boundaries, be a threat? Or are we to conclude that pro-Israeli demonstrators are such violent opponents of academic freedom that the police cannot contain them?
Prof Hilary Rose, Prof Steven Rose
London